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Democrat on Tightrope at Political Center

Times Staff Writer

Facing a stiff challenge at a time when Vice President George Bush has tried to make “liberal” a dirty word, one veteran state legislator is campaigning for reelection as a Democrat who has broken ranks with his allies on critical issues.

“Maybe I should have broken ranks sooner,” three-term Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg of Sacramento tells voters in a pamphlet outlining how he independently advanced a compromise solution to balance the state budget last summer without consulting Assembly Speaker Willie Brown or other Democratic leaders.

“It’s really not a natural thing for me to do,” Isenberg, who usually is characterized as a pragmatic liberal, said of his action in breaking away from his Democratic colleagues on how to balance the budget. “All of my life I have been a team player.”

Ultimately, most of his budget compromise was signed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. In a television advertisement, Isenberg recalls that the Democratic author of the Assembly budget bill “got angry at me and the governor” but asserts that “my plan worked and, as much as my colleagues may not like it, I’m going to do it again next year.”

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In another commercial, Isenberg, whose voting record on labor issues rated a 97% score by the AFL-CIO, talks of his “friends” in labor unions killing his “damned good” catastrophic health insurance bill. “I’m going to keep pushing it until it passes, and my friends will have to get used to it,” he said.

So is Isenberg seeking to portray himself as a conservative as he battles against an unexpectedly serious assault by Republican Larry Bowler, a sheriff’s lieutenant.

No, says the 49-year-old Isenberg, whose colleagues term him one of the brightest members of the Legislature. His name appears on most speculation lists as a potential successor to Speaker Brown someday.

Isenberg says he is breaking away from “conventional wisdom” on some issues but has not become a Lone Ranger who has forsaken his party.

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“I am not hiding from my tradition, from my political party, from my friends, and I am not hiding from anyone on anything,” he said. “I am not significantly different from what I was last year, 5, 6, 10 years ago. . . . I’ve learned some things and, yes, I have changed positions.

“I hate to be stereotyped. I hate to be totally predictable. I kind of like kicking over the traces,” explains Isenberg of his “breaking away” campaign theme.

Isenberg went on to say: “I am a Democrat who believes in balanced budgets because they protect social programs. I believe in catastrophic health insurance for everyone in this state even if some of my friends don’t want to help pay for it. I am a Democrat who is strong on law and order even if I do not support the death penalty.”

At the outset of the race, Bowler, seeking elective office for the first time, was given little chance of defeating the veteran Isenberg in the 10th Assembly District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans about 57% to 34%. Now both sides agree the race is tight.

The district encompasses parts of Sacramento, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties and includes thousands of newcomers in large tracts of new residential developments.

In a barrage of television and mail strikes, Republicans have mounted a full-scale assault with Bowler claiming at least partial credit for what he says is Isenberg’s “effort to make himself look conservative.”

“We are holding Isenberg accountable for his close relationship to Willie Brown,” Bowler said. “The people throughout the whole district dislike Willie Brown greatly. Willie Brown is synonymous with, ‘We don’t like politicians.’ ”

For years, Republicans have made the politically powerful Brown, a brash San Franciscan whom they perceive as unpopular with California voters, the focus of their attacks on Democratic candidates.

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Mailers Anger Backers

Bowler, whose harshly negative mailers have angered some of his own supporters, insists that Isenberg’s support of ousted state Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird “was the ultimate as far as law enforcement was concerned.”

Isenberg has been endorsed by virtually every peace officer organization in the district. He notes that such groups disagree with his stand on the death penalty and Bird, but nevertheless they can agree on other issues.

Assemblyman Tom Hannigan of Fairfield, the Assembly Democratic floor leader whose picture appeared in an Isenberg “breaking ranks” brochure, says he believes Isenberg’s campaign is seeking to project a theme of “independence of thought and action.”

“It seems to be in vogue to label Democrats as liberals this year, thinking that is going to defeat them,” Hannigan said. “I don’t think that is going to work in this case.”

Play for New Voters

Another Democratic legislator, who carefully monitors the state’s political climate, suggested that Isenberg may be tailoring his campaign to the newcomers in fast-growing suburban neighborhoods. Isenberg in the past has never had to campaign for their votes because he had never been seriously contested for reelection.

This legislator, who asked not to be identified, characterized these voters as affluent and educated. “The ideology associated with those new voters is more independent and less partisan. They may register as Democrats, but they wouldn’t walk lock-step with Democrats,” he said.

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“In the suburban areas, there is every sign of Bush doing well,” he said. “Campaigning as a Democrat doesn’t carry much in those kinds of areas. The need for local candidates to distinguish themselves from the national ticket becomes important.”


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